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Book Review: Cain at Gettysburg

Author: Ralph Peters

Publisher: Forge Books

Reviewing Author: Dan Pinkham

With the country in the midst of the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War and the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this year I have found myself somewhat disappointed in the apparent lack of coverage of this pivotal period in American history.  So to fill the void I rummaged around the internet and came across a recently published (2012) historical-fiction novel titled Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters.  Before buying the book I read some reviews and many compared it to Michael Shaara’s excellent Gettysburg novel, Killer Angels.  I can tell you that this is not the case.  While both books are excellent in their own respects I believe Cain at Gettysburg brings a soldier’s unique perspective in a way many books do not.  The author Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer who has written over 20 fiction and non-fiction books many with military themes, brings the Battle of Gettysburg to life in a whole new way.

Peters gives an intimate look at not only the two commanding generals, Lee and Meade but gives an up close and personal look at the everyday soldiers carrying out the orders.  In an era of political correctness and hollywoodized recreations, this book does not sugar coat the details.  From the inconvenient bowel troubles of Lee to the gory details of battle, Peters makes the reader experience things as if they were there.  In doing so, he humanizes the characters from an age past that few can do within a non-fiction account of the battle.  The book flows well from the perspective of various commanders to the discussion amongst the common soldier.  It is impossible to cover all the detail of the battle in 425 pages, instead Peters focuses on a small cast of characters from the historical figures of Lee and Meade to the historically based but fabricated characters of infantry men on both sides.

As the author guides the story over those three fateful days his insights as a former solider are evident.  From the description of the land to the camaraderie of the common soldiers Peters gives a unique insight into what he believes the men in gray and blue experienced.  He takes it a step further when he masterfully recreates the battle scenes.  While very narrow in scope these scenes show the true horrors and futility of war.  In a very graphic but not overly gratuitous way Peters shows what combat during this era was really like.  This perspective is further enhanced by the descriptions of the pre battle scenes among the troops and the post battle recovery of those who remained.  In the scenes outside of battle we get a glimpse of some of the myriad of reasons behind the individual soldier’s compulsion to fight for their chosen side.

The chapters that cover Lee and Meade, as well as a few others that cover their direct subordinates, are well done and convey the struggles that those in command of an army face.  Some of these scenes and their accompanying dialogue seem highlight mistakes made that became readily apparent in hindsight of the battle.  At times I found this distracting but at other points I realized in my mind I was pleading with the characters to not make the mistakes that history tells us were made.

Finally, what many will find interesting if not refreshing is the fair shake down that this book gives General Meade.  I think it is safe to say that General Meade is sometimes better known for his failure to pursue the defeated Confederate army than his victory at Gettysburg.  This book gives an excellent portrayal of Meade taking command shortly before Gettysburg and his conduct and command throughout the battle.  To a man who fell victim to the political attacks of subordinates and was overshadowed by U.S. Grant later in the way, this book gives his reputation a nice shot in the arm.

Cain at Gettysburg is a must read for not only those fans who study the Battle of Gettysburg but also those who enjoy studying military history in general.  Its unique perspectives and well written narrative give the reader an authentic look into one of the Civil War’s most pivotal moments.  On this, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg I can think of no better way to remember this great conflict than to give this book a read.

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